Our friend Tonino Meneghetti made headlines for the first time in October, 1991, in Sardinia, when his "favourite disciple" - Marina Furlan - , a 28-year-old former beauty queen, died.
The press did its best to find out everything about that bold sailor who took the girl on his yacht but was unable to save her from the waves which suddenly overwhelmed the boat, dragging the young lady into the depths of the sea, while Tonino barely managed to swim to the shore.
The story has some unique aspects to it. Meneghetti was rather well known in Sardinia for his habit of handing out calling cards with a long list of titles and honours, and for introducing himself as a scientist and founder of a new ideology, Ontopsychology, which had attracted Miss Furlan so much so that she became his follower, or was forced to.
At the time, every newspaper dealt with the story, and the judges had a hard time trying to discover the truth about that strange death.
The story is soon told. Marina, a girl from the Northern Italian region of Friuli, had become a follower of Meneghetti several months before: her godmother, a lady from Trieste, had won the confidence of the Furlan family and had taken the girl to the headquarters of the group (then at Scandriglia near Rieti in central Italy), hoping to make her succeed as a university student and artist. Marina put up no resistance to her friend, and slowly left her home, family and friends behind her in order to follow her "master" completely. Once inside the group, she apparently was abused in various ways, but could no longer rebel, since her behaviour was dictated by the group she belonged to: she was far from her family, went out only accompanied by other followers and spoke the typical jargon of any closed movement, something which kept her far away from the ordinary world and from anybody who could have helped her.
Just before she died, Marina had tried to get in touch with her family again. Perhaps she was seeking help to get out of the situation she was in, and she may have expressed the intention of escaping from Scandriglia. She seemed to have become less obedient towards the orders of her master, and apparently wanted to think on her own, something the leadership did not find a nice idea at all.
So Meneghetti took her to his villa in Sardinia, passing her off as his mistress, then as his pupil, then as a rebel to be disciplined, then as a friend.
He took her on his boat on the open sea, in order to speak sweetly to her and perhaps to convince her of his good intentions, when suddenly an anomalous wave came up, capsizing the ship, and she drowned miserably, while he reached the shore to call help.
The trial was a long and difficult one; his faithful female followers came quickly to testify in his favour, and he was finally accused only of manslaughter.
Certainly both the autopsy and later investigation showed that Marina knew how to swim (her fiancé told the court how he had taught her) and was found naked, with strange marks around her neck.
Manslaughter? The judges no doubt assessed the evidence carefully, but it is not always easy to assess with the same care the complex dynamics which arise inside a group which appears to have some of the boldest and most slippery features of a cult. It is only proper, therefore to ask: did Marina die by accident or was she silenced in order to avoid her revealing something about the more secret purposes of the group and its founder? In order to really understand the trial, we need to take a look at the surprising discrepancies of the sentence, but also at the accounts of the trial and the questioning of the witness which appeared in the local press.
There were several moments during the inquiry and the trial when Meneghetti began to stammer and to contradict himself. The first was when discussing how Marina was dressed at the time of the accident, which we can compare with the official sentence:
The professor goes on with his dramatic tale: "...After a quarter of an hour, a patrol motorboat of the port stops one kilometer away from where Marina's body had risen to the surface, then goes back. Another boat does the same thing. And both said they had seen nothing. Yet Marina was wearing a fuchsia-coloured sports suit; and, incredibly, her body had stayed at the same place for over an hour" (Visto, October 1991).The second contradiction involved the state of the sea, which Meneghetti described as quiet and untroubled, whereas the Carabinieri spoke of extremely dangerous conditions force five conditions:
Nor was that all. The ontopsychologist living in Scandriglia added that Marina was wearing a life belt. The report of the Caraibinieri, on the other hand, said that they young lady psychologist, at the time her body was found, was stark naked except for a wind jacket. (Il messaggero - Lazio, October 7th, 1991).
Yesterday, the underwater investigation department of the Cagliari police finished their task: for four days, they had been sounding and exploring the stretch of sea where the small outboard engine boat on which Marina Furlan was sitting (while professor Meneghetti was swimming nearby) had capsized. The scuba divers found a red towel and the bottom part of a blue bikini apparently belonging to the young psychologist. (Il messaggero - Lazio, October 12th, 1991).
THE DEFENCE GIVES UP - THE MANY CONTRADICTIONS OF ANTONIO MENEGHETTIWhat an idea, going out on raging seas and with such high spirits as to take a swim! The anchor of the boat was never found; yet it should have been cast into the water for Meneghetti to go swimming:
Meneghetti has always claimed he took to sea with his lady friend on a small boat, after having listened to the news about the weather on the radio. The sea was not calm, however neither was it threatening. This is why he decided to depart from the shore. But now the first contradiction: the Carabinieri of Carloforte found out that the radio had broadcast a serious warning to navigators at the hour indicated by Meneghetti. This appears to destroy the claims of the ontopsychologist, who showed clear signs of restlessness when he heard this evidence submitted to the magistrate. (Il messaggero - Lazio, October 7th, 1991).
But what actually happened? "It was our last day at the seaside and we went out shortly before 2 p.m. We wanted to enjoy the afternoon. We went slowly, and when we reached La Caletta - a place I do not know very well - I was enchanted: the sun was out and the sea was flat. I though, I am going to take one last swim". ....
What did he think of doing? "I admit I thought this was the end. I am dead, I am dead, I told myself. And a thought flashed through my mind. What about all the things I still have to do? There was the Islamic University of Samarkand which wanted me to hold a seminar" (L'unione sarda - Cagliari - October 12th, 1991)
The investigators are unceasingly working over what could turn out to be the key of the mystery: why did Meneghetti sail out on a stormy sea (force five) with his friend who did not know how to swim? And that is not all. The carabinieri (whom Meneghetti first sent out toward Punta dei Cannoni instead of Punta dello Spalmatore) say that the young lady was definitely not wearing a life belt. (Il messaggero - Rieti).
"The sea was truly troubled - stresses the commander of the Carabinieri of Carloforte – and the mistral was blowing: I never would have gone out with waves like that". (Messaggero - Lazio - October 4th, 1991).
No trace of the anchor: after the boat turned over, it should have fallen perpendicularly onto the sandy bottom. Finding it would have made it possible to identify the exact spot of the tragedy which took the life of the beautiful girl from Gorizia. (Il messaggero - Lazio, October 12th, 1991).During the appeal of the trial, Meneghetti's defence counsel stressed the sentimental side of the story:
The local magistrate of S. Antioco sentenced Meneghetti to one year and eight months. The appeal was heard yesterday. The public attorney asked for the sentence to be confirmed. The defence lawyers told another story, of a sunny day, an inviting sea, a romantic excursion. And they strongly upheld the thesis that it was all a sad accident. (L'unione sarda, January 19th, 1996).Marina was presented as Meneghetti's mistress (even though both his wife and her fiancé were both in Sardinia at the time), as a student, as an uneducated person needing instuction, and so on, according to the passing needs of the defence:
MARINA WAS MY MISTRESS (Il messaggero - Rieti October 15th, 1991).The sentence was rather favourable to Meneghetti (manslaughter is not very significant in penal terms), but we are left with some doubts as to what actually happened, also because:
What were the relations with Marina Furlan?
A student of mine. Just a student.
I first met Marina Furlan in 1983: she came to the college I was running in Rieti, on the advice of a psychologist from Trieste. She had only been to the third year of middle school (eighth year of school) and she now managed to get a university degree in Psychology. She taught my children and was about to get her second degree in child education ..." (L'unione sarda - Cagliari - October 12th, 1991).
Until that tragic holiday in Sardinia, where Claudio Zanchi, Marina's twenty-two year old fiancé, was too. However he had left earlier, on Sunday. The accident took place on Wednesday. (L'unione sarda - Cagliari - October 13th 1991).
Tonino Meneghetti went back to Cagliari to ask for an end to the investigations: actually, the ontopsychologist had an informal talk (with no notes taken) with the magistrate, asking him to close the investigation quickly so he could get back to his scientific and teaching activities. (Il messaggero veneto, October 24th, 1991)The press then set out to see whether Meneghetti and the other members of the group had any criminal record. This is what they came up with:
in 1978, he had been charged with crimes
against the family, against people, of swindling, theft and possession
in 1984 charged with theft and practising a profession without permission;
in 1987 charged with criminal conspiracy, drug trafficking and swindling
In 1979 he was arrested together with 12 followers (who are still the leaders of the Italian Association of Ontopsychology, AIO, and its various currents) - plus two more who went into hiding, including the notorious godmother of Furlan - charged with criminal conspiracy, taking part in making use of titles without having a right to do so, sharing in committing continuous and enormous abuse of the medical profession, sharing in enormous and continuous swindling, rape and continued indecent deeds, enormous theft. After some time in gaol, they were released due to "lack of evidence" ( and not due to "being proved innocent", as they often claim).
Many other accusations were levelled against him, but he nearly always managed to get away due to running of the statute of limitations, or to prescription or because of challenge to the judges.
On June 26, 1991 (in other words, before the death of Miss Furlan) an interesting articlecame out in the leading Italian daily La Repubblica under the headline "Il business si fa in Sette" ("Cults become a business"). This article gives a detailed description of Meneghetti's activities, his criminal record, the real aims of Ontopsychology and various strange deaths which occurred inside the group.
Of course, as always, the ontopsychologists mobilized and sued Massimo Lugli, author of the article. The trial ended in the Court of Appeal with the complete acquittal of both the journalist and the article, and hence with an accusation against the ontopsychologists and against Tonino (the Home page on Meneghetti, instead, claims, that "... they have systematically paid for their journalistic "inaccuracies" with sentences and damage 0payments").